Gombrowicz's "Operetta' at Live Arts Festival (1st review)

Satirist without a country, in search of an audience

Brykalski and Pietrzak: American Poles were embarrassed. (Photo: Lukasz Gawronski.)
Brykalski and Pietrzak: American Poles were embarrassed. (Photo: Lukasz Gawronski.)

If Witold Gombrowicz had lived in the Ethernet age, culturati would know his work as well as they do Shakespeare, Jarry, Molière, Breuer and Forman— or even, as was suggested at the post-show reception for his Operetta at the Wilma, John Waters. But for most of his life Gombrowicz (say gohm-brÓ³-vitch) lived buried in exile and poverty in Buenos Aires, his work disseminated only by snail mail, telephone and the twitter of his post-World War II era, word-of-mouth.

Gombrowicz arrived in Argentina by ship as a diplomat just before the Germans invaded Poland 70 years ago. A generation later, while climbing up the gangplank on his way back across the Atlantic for a triumphant return (to France, not Poland), Gombrowicz was besieged by writers begging for his advice. "Kill Borges," he snapped.

After the war, Poland's Communist government banned his work for its pitiless attacks on society's weaknesses, much as today's largely anti-intelligentsia Polish-American community shuns him for his anti-clericalism and homophilia. "We would not support it," a representative to the recent Polish American Congress declared. "It is too lewd."

Poor Witold. He just can't win.

Quadruple the mayhem

Gombrowicz's Operetta, begun in 1958 and not completed until 1966, has been produced in 25 countries and almost as many languages. Gombrowicz didn't live to see it onstage, dying just a few months before its Parisian premiere. Take all the gleeful mayhem that any of the above artists caused and double it. No, redouble it. That's part of the game(s)"“ betting, polo, dueling, scoring women— of this operetta, which concerns what is basically a pissing-contest between Count Charm (Arkadiusz Brykalski) and Baron Firulet (Krzysztof Boczkowski.)

Like the work of all great writers and satirists, Gombrowicz's oeuvre is rife with certain motifs. The infantilization and the famous grimacing contest in his Ferdydurke re-emerge in other forms in Trans-Atlantyk and other works. In Ivona, Princess of Burgundia (seen here in Theater Exile's 2002 magnificent production, with Joe Canuso as Lord Chamberlain and Amy Smith as Ivona), the main female character is mute. In Operetta, the main female character (Ewalina Adamska) mainly sleeps and so is also rendered nearly mute, save for one word she shouts repeatedly: "Naked."

Naked hi-jinks


The foppery of fashion is another motif, and Gombrowicz and director MichaÅ‚ Zadara skewer it perfectly here, especially in the form of the French designer Maestro Fior (Cezary Studniak.) As soon as Studniak's tall, black-suited figure steps on stage, he is in command— but not for long. Subversives, led by the polo-playing Count Hufnagel (Rafal Kronenberger), upset the equanimity of the tony ski-resort Zadara has chosen for his setting.

The first act zanily sets up the show, in which Charm's efforts to dress (not undress) Albertine, whom he hopes to make his latest conquest, backfire. Charm's valet (Michał Pietrzak) brings him a thief on a leash (Lukasz Wӳjcik) who will steal something from Albertine. Charm will trounce him and retrieve the article, enabling him to introduce himself and perhaps seduce the sleepy girl. But after Albertine feels the thief's hand on her breast, she longs only for nudity. And nudity there is, with many hilarious high jinks in the buff (or near-buff).

Purists will argue that to cut anything from this three-hour tour de force would be a crime against Gombrowicz. I would agree if I were in Warsaw or Paris. But for American audiences, the Prince's (Ryszard Klaniecki) soliloquy, though perfectly declaimed in the gawęda style of prattling, should have been cut and the cataclysmic end to the act shortened. A half-hour cut would have tightened the show and heightened the experience for an American audience.

The Swarthmore connection

In a post-show panel, Zadara pointed out that the surtitles threw the timing off, extending the show by some 15 minutes. Much to the credit of Allen Kuharski, chair of Swarthmore's Theater Department, and the Polish Cultural Institute in New York, this is the fifth Gombrowicz play/dance performed in Philly in the last decade— raising our audiences to the heights of his purposeful ridiculopathy and dragging them to the depths of the human depravities that Gombrowicz so viciously lampoons. Zadara, a Pole who graduated from Kuharski's department ten years ago, returned to Philadelphia with this important and well-staged production.

To keep the show fresh through the ages, Gombrowicz had the foresight to stipulate that a new score be written for each production. Zadara worked with Polish jazz pianist Leszek Możdżer for the soft Eurojazz sound now popular in Poland.

Among many priceless performers were Boczkowski, who looked like he'd jump out of his birthday suit with glee, and Studniak, who could stop a runaway train with a glare. The most endearing touches: the camel— a symbol used by Satie and the Dadaists— and the cutest little cable car.♦

To read another review by Jonathan M. Stein, click here.

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